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Split the lark

There’s a TV show called Dickinson, about the American poet Emily Dickinson. It’s modernized and witty and wild, and pretty surreal at times (which I love), clearly borrowing tricks from what Moulin Rouge did so well back in the day. Dickinson also has its problems, and it won’t be for everyone, but there was this one scene that gave me an experience I can’t stop thinking about. And my dilemma is this: part of the experience was my surprise, which you won’t get if you read this before watching it. But I’ll go ahead anyway, and let you decide for yourself, so: brief spoilers ahead, especially for season two, episode six.

A little context: Emily Dickinson was probably, very probably, queer. The show is certainly based on that theory, focusing on her romantic relationship with Sue, a childhood friend who marries Emily’s brother (both in real life and in the show). In this particular episode, Emily and Sue’s relationship has been strained for a while. Emily has also been connecting with a man, someone who wants to publish her poems, but whose attention also seems more personal.

They all go to the opera, and Emily tries to give the man one of her poems, “Split the Lark”, probably freshly written. I actually don’t remember if he reads it or not, or what his reaction is, just that they fall out because the guy is married and he thinks she’s overstepping. So he leaves her there, in a private box at the opera, and Emily is hurt and confused and all kinds of muddled. I remember that I wasn’t really paying attention while watching — until the show did one of its beautifully surreal twists, all of which seem to stem from Emily’s own inner world.

On stage, where the singer just stood, is Sue, Emily’s beloved, backed up by a full orchestra and shining under the stage lights. And she’s singing Emily’s poem.

The song only lasts one hundred and four seconds, yet I remember being so utterly carried away, so glued to my little ipad mini screen. It was such a tender moment, suddenly tearing both us, the audience, and Emily herself, back to the main story, back to the heart of the show, and to the source of so many of her poems.

Also, yes, music is basically my emotional Achilles’ heel. I should have seen it coming, with all the parallels to Moulin Rouge and also that they were at the opera, but no. I was all the better for it, though, firmly tugged out of every thought in my head and into the moment, into a swirl of regret and joy and surprise and longing and crystal clear knowledge about the importance of art.

I’ve listened to the song many, many times since then. I’ve sung it in the shower, while cooking, staring at the ceiling in my daybed. It’s a nice enough song. The point isn’t the song, or even the poem (though it does cut like a scalpel). The point is that feeling I had. And I’ve realized how rarely it happens that I’m overwhelmed by anything like that. How rarely anything moves me in such a visceral way these days.

Because our world isn’t really set up to create those hook-in-the-gut moments, is it? I mean, I absolutely think it’s possible to get this kind of experience from an Instagram post, but… it would require a state of mind that I rarely have while my attention is flung from cat videos to political atrocities to the newest sewing pattern. On social media I keep my guard ever so slightly up, braced for bad news, which isn’t the best way to take in art. And as for my own creations, they sometimes feel, to me at least, more utilitarian (“I need something to hang on my wall”), than an expression of my secret heart.

So in a way, our society mirrors (Apple TV’s) Emily Dickinson’s dilemma: can she create her art, her poems, if she gets famous, if she suddenly belongs to everyone? Or is she better off guarding her own world from prying eyes, focusing her gaze inwards, into herself? It goes for experiencing art as well as creating it.

It would be easy to say this is all the fault of the Internetz. But I am no analogue purist — in fact, I’ve met several of my dearest friends online. Also, cat videos are hilarious. But even as someone who finds meaning in life through art, through creation, I often forget to create room for slowness. These kinds of experiences require attention and curiosity. It’s music that needs a loud enough volume, poetry that needs to be read slowly, nature you have to touch. This is something online life often sorely lacks. It worries me sometimes, which kinds of art and media will survive. Like, what does this do to any art that you don’t “get” right away? That we can’t reward with a like, or banish with a flick of a finger? And what does this do to our own ability to feel? To create?

I think we need it. We need to feel an orchestra tune their instruments, the vibration shaking the dust from our bones. Or, through a camera lens, see the world simplified to a rectangle; manageable and focused through our desire. To let the pencil glide across the paper like fingers over skin, lovingly, breathing life into it. Like physical therapy for the senses, or the heart, we need something to get the blood flowing and wake us up.

At least, I do. I need that. Maybe you do, too.

Split the Lark – and You’ll find the Music

Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled

Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning

Saved for your Ear, when Lutes be old.

Loose the Flood – you shall find it patent

Gush after Gush, reserved for you

Scarlet Experiment! Skeptic Thomas!

Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?


Emily Dickinson

PS: if you’re curious about the poem itself I found this blog post really interesting.

On the equinox

There’s something about the year’s equinoxes and solstices that I’m so drawn to. I like how they mark the way the world moves, how the earth and the sun keep dancing around, almost like people, sometimes close together, sometimes far apart.

As I live in a place with four distinct seasons (though some of you would definitely laugh at our summers!), it’s nice to mark how they change. The winter solstice feels especially important. We have polar nights here, which means that from December 2nd until January 10th, the sun is too far below the horizon to see it at all — and those dates only apply to particular places in the city, so many houses won’t see the sun for even longer. But the winter solstice is a logical, emotional reassurance that the season has turned and the sun will come back.

In the meantime, there’s still plenty of northern lights to enjoy, and the deep blue daylight you get when there is no sun. If we’re lucky, snow will amplify what light there is, and the golden flames of candles and fires seem extra warm surrounded by so much blue. The best thing is to stand briefly outside on a freezing day, your breath a white cloud around you, the cold biting your face and hands and any exposed skin. Everything is very still. Then you run inside again, and your home suddenly seems much warmer and brighter and cozier than it was before. Bonus points if there is hot chocolate waiting.

As for the spring equinox… to be honest, to me it tends to be more a hope for spring than the actual thing. March is a dreary exercise in patience up here, mostly wet and grey and still pretty dead. But the return of the sun helps. Mum and I will unironically text each other, marvelling at how “it’s light until four now! You can still see some blue in the sky at five!”.

I also like how the first quarter of the year feels crisper, sharper, simpler, in a way that’s almost a relief after the winter holidays. It’s back to the basics and the everyday. Even though my own days don’t follow work/school schedules, it’s still a good time for routines. It makes me want to plan things. Fix things. Decide things (though not in January. January is for blankets and tea and sitting still).

The summer solstice is glorious, with midnight sun and wildflowers and newly hatched seagull babies. You can smell the ocean again, freshly mowed grass, and warm earth and sun lotion and barbecues and linen. Can you tell I love our summers? There’s no point in going to bed, the sun is always up and so are we. Young women in party makeup stand crowded outside bars, glittering in the midnight sun. Our golden hour is basically all night, perfect for impromptu photo shoots, or just generally feeling like you’re in a movie. There will also be rain, but it’s summer rain. And it smells so good when it’s over.

Right now we’re at the autumn equinox. Sometimes I marvel at how autumn is described on Instagram, with the joyful choruses of “trench coat but no tights!” and “finally not so hot!”. After the hot summers some of you people have, I’m sure it’s a relief, but it’s very far from our autumn. Here it’s a handful of glorious days, with crisp air and blue sky and stunningly orange and red trees, before the first storm strips most of it away and it’s time to unpack all the wool (if you could be bothered to pack it away at all). No wonder so many people up here dread the coming months, with their relentless dimming of the lights until the holiday season.

You know I’m not one for glib positivity, but for me the only way to get through the winter without feeling like I’m slowly suffocating, is to embrace it.

Like, fuck it, it’s going to get dark and cold and slow, might as well go all in. It’s the time for moody fantasy books and witty period dramas, for film soundtracks and misty moors, beeswax candles and cello music. I’ll fill the freezer with a fresh batch of potato soup, because finally the potatoes pack some punch again. I can revel in letter writing, yarn crafts, complaining loudly about the weather and sending 😩-emojis to any southern friends. The best activity is watching the dusk approach without turning on the lights. All the wool. I see your hot water bottle and raise you an electrical heated blanket.

So have courage, northern-hemisphere folks. This can be cozy and quiet and somewhat comforting. And even when it’s not, it will pass, if we grit our teeth and wash our hands and wait. Southern-hemisphere folk, you know what I mean (and soon you’ll be where we are right now!).

Round and round we go.

Meet me in the garden

The other day I had to go through some old blog posts of mine. It was both endearing and awkward to see myself call readers “darling” and “kitten” (I always was a sucker for endearments), post outfit photos, and recommend everything from skin care to books to life philosophy without hesitation. I remember being that Maria. She was sweet, and young, and fond of pink.

Most of all, reading those old posts I realized how much I miss blogs. Not just my own, but the whole world of them. With the notable exception of sewing blogs, which is still a thing, there aren’t many left anymore. It’s all videos now or, if we’re lucky, a longish Instagram caption. My still virus-addled brain is thankful for videos, but… I miss the words.

When it comes to my own blog, I still write post after post — I just don’t publish them. Partly because I can’t seem to actually finish one, and also because I have complicated feelings about my privacy. After a decade of having to share my most personal details to a blurry line of doctors, psychologists, government employees and such, I fiercely treasure my new privacy. At last my sole source of income and medical help doesn’t depend on divulging any and every detail. I can choose whether or not to share.

Sometimes I wonder, though: is it just the relief of setting my own boundaries, or is there an element of fear mixed in? Distrust? I mean, it would be utterly natural if there was, but it’s something to consider. Because I also miss the writing, inviting you into my thoughts. As someone who leaves the house once a week at the most (pandemic or not), my “online presence” is my biggest connection to the world. And sometimes, sometimes, I feel vaguely ghost-like out here in the ones and zeroes, invisibly staring through digital windows while avoiding the light from lamp posts that would reveal me.

Ever since I started blogging, back in 2008 (oh, boy), my focus was on style, on clothes, on the bodies in them. A decade later I didn’t want to do that anymore. It felt right to drop that theme, but, while freeing, it was also akin to the blank page many artists fear: here, you can do anything — now make something. As much as I dislike metaphorical boxes, it can be helpful to create inside some kind of frame.

For a while I wrote about my life, about being ill. I thought I had to, in the name of ME/CFS activism (which the world sorely needs), in the name of honesty and depth. I’ve always been a smidge too earnest for my own good. But I don’t want to do that anymore. It feels way too private to leave out here, allowing anyone to glare into my digital home, my private rooms, my bare self.

Still. Maybe I can still be here, maybe I can still write, maybe it’s not a case of all or nothing. Maybe instead of a window flung open to the dark, I can invite you to join me in something more like a metaphorical garden.

Instead of fearing that this boundary will invalidate my illness, or make it seem like I’m faking it, maybe we can all remember that what we see online will always be a curated kind of life, a part of the whole.

Something rather like a garden.